In Sunset Boulevard (1950) Norma Desmond proclaimed about silent films, “We didn’t need dialogue! We had faces!” Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Menilmontant (1926) is an example of that and how! Nadia Sibirskaïa, the director’s wife at the time, emotes flawlessly as the younger sister. This film holds a special place in my heart and is always one of the films I recommend to people new/interested in silents because in a little over 30 minutes it moves one so deeply. The lack of title cards and a series of montages result in a story that’s ambiguous at times but I quite like that.
The opening scene is a cross cut of an intense and brutal of a man murdering a couple in their own home and their two daughters played by Nadia Sirbirskaia and Yolande Beaulieu. The rest of the story centers on how they move to the city to make fresh start together but instead take two different routes.
The most iconic scene of this film is Sirbirksaia on the park bench.
Sirbirskaia was 26 at the time of this film and while it’s unclear how old Beaulieu was, in the above series of photos the costume design helps establish their characters are children. In the far left the hairstyle with a large bow on top of the head evokes a child aspect, as well as the costume in the center of the short dress and bloomers. Their action also tells the audience because in the middle photo this is from the scene where they are taunting a cat and playing carefree outside. On the far right, while in their mourning clothes, we can also tell a little bit more about the sisters. Obviously the older one is on the left because her dress is more mature such as the veil on the hat as well as the way Beaulieu is holding Sirbirskaia’s chin in a caring way. Sirbirskaia on the other hand has her hair down and wears a different hat. Often times in stories the young women wear their hair up when they reach a certain age.
Later on in the film after a day’s work, the older sister follows the younger one where she learns that her sister is seeing someone. Film reviews indicate that he is a thug but we can tell that he is lower middle class by a few factors. First, you can’t tell quite clearly by the center photo but his shirt appears to be a simple cotton shirt paired with a blazer than a button up or something more formal. In contrast to the photos on each side, we can see that the girls are dressed a little bit nicer with their coats and hats that are more outerwear. Once again, their wardrobe reveals their difference in age. Notice the makeup as well of the two sisters. The lips are deemphasized at the bottom and have a prominent cupid’s bow. It’s slightly clearer to see on the far right photo notice that the lipstick doesn’t go all the way on the inner corners of the lower lip. Both sisters have eyeliner to emphasize the eyes but the line is kept quite thin. On the far right image again you can see the liner was brought out slightly on the outer edge. This isn’t a wing that one might associate with the 40s and 50s, but rather a precursor to the 1930’s liner where the goal is to slightly elongate but by keeping the line low it maintains what we might call a sleepy eye affect. In the center, the man wore some makeup as well it appeared. Many times we often assume the actresses wore makeup in old films, but everyone wears makeup just like in theatre. However the man/thug’s makeup is more of lipstick at times to bring out his mouth from the harsh lighting as well as liner at the base of the lashes only and shadow focusing on the inner corners.
When the younger sister comes back from a walk she sees her sister with the him after they just slept together. We’re never sure of how the boy met either of the sisters but especially the older sister so in a sense we experience genuine surprise with the younger sister in this plot point. The younger sister is upset obviously and Sibirskaia’s reaction is a wonderful mix of hurt of betrayal and yet a sense of shame. A transition and a costume change later, we see her holding a baby on the hospital steps. Look at the center and far right photo. In the center, the younger sister is a stylishly dressed young woman with a cloche and coat holding a pocketbook and on the far right now we see almost a different person and she looks younger to me. This might be intended to show the vulnerable trait in the character since this is her first time out in the world on her own–with a child. Her hair is frazzled and the simple coat show a downgrade in her status and allow the interpretation that maybe she sold her belongings to pay for the hospital stay or food for her and her child.
After the bread sequence, the younger sister stops to rest on stone steps in a different part of the city. She studies a woman leaving an establishment for a moment and Sirbirskaia blinks her eyes in disbelief as though she thinks she’s dreaming that woman is her older sister. But it is her sister.Their reactions capture the astonishment of meeting after a length of time we’re never certain on. So we get a sense of what has happened to the older sister. She’s well dressed and has become a wealthy woman by her fur trimmed coat and matching hat. Her lipstick is darker and her hair is bobbed showing that she’s a stylish woman who keeps up with the latest fashions because she can afford to. In the end they embrace and walk away together. Meanwhile the boy and a friend get in a fight with another man and the friend tries to throw a brick at the man. Instead the brick hits the boy. We’re never sure of the details or relationship between these two scenes, but what we interpret? We’re also never given any closure about the past but do we need to after seeing the two sisters reunite?
I wanted to touch on the set design briefly. Most of the film is set outdoors around Paris. But these two screenshots compare the room of the sisters versus the boy’s. In the sister’s room, we can infer that they obviously don’t have a lot of money. One room apartments were traditionally for those of lower middle class. However, we can tell that the sisters have tried to make it nice by the unidentifiable wall art. There’s actually a montage that shows different parts of their room and we see a shoe on the rug by the bed and a closet of clothes that looks more like a cupboard. I assume that they share that single cupboard. On the opposite image, we can tell that the boy has a little bit more money, though by no means could we say that he’s wealthy. His apartment has a dining table and is more spacious with framed art and a few knickknacks. It’s difficult to tell what all he has because this film isn’t in the best quality as you can see.
Regardless, Menilmontant is a wonderful short film I recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen it–or hasn’t seen it recently. This film is one of the first silent films to go without title cards completely and one of the first to use storytelling techniques with the camera that were unusual in it’s time. As I re-watched it for the first time in three years, it really made me consider ambiguity in storytelling. What parts can storytellers (in filmmaking but also writers of literature) omit and do we need to tell the audience everything? By leaving certain details out, how does the interpretation impact what we’re trying to convey?